art by: Jerome Lawrence shadow voices: finding hope in mental illness
Criminal Justice System

Did you know…

Approximately 5 percent of the population has a serious mental illness.[1] The US Department of Justice reports, however, that about 16 percent of the population in prison or jail has a mental illness.[2]

On average, inmates with mental illness serve a longer portion of their sentence than inmates without mental illness. On Riker’s Island, New York City’s largest jail, the average length of stay for all offenders is 42 days; it is 215 days for inmates with a serious mental illness. [3]

The public and the media often associate mental illness and the criminal justice system with pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity (or under new state laws, a conviction of guilty but insane). A small fraction of defendants with mental illness make such pleas. A 1996 study of the Baltimore Circuit Court estimated that of 60,342 indictments filed during one year, only 8 defendants (.013 percent) ultimately pleaded not criminally responsible. All 8 pleas were uncontested by the state. [4]

As jurisdictions seek ways to respond to the increasing numbers of people with mental illness coming into contact with the criminal justice system, mental health courts are emerging around the country. In the late 1990s, only a few such courts were accepting cases. Since then, some 70 others have been established or are in planning stages. Congress has promoted the development of mental health courts with the passage in 2000 of ’s Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project Act, which instructed the Attorney General to fund demonstration projects. The resulting Mental Health Courts Grant Program, which relies on a flexible definition of what constitutes a mental health court, provided grants to 37 courts in 2002 and 2003 and will continue to fund TA for all existing courts through 2005.

Used by permission.Mental Health Courts Survey

More Resources

To read more about the mental health courts, including current news and projects, visit

Do you know a mentally ill person who has recently been arrested? The following guide can help you find the best ways to advocate for and help this person: How to Help

Follow this link to find a mental health court in your state: Mental Health Courts Survey

In order to educate police on how to deal with the mentally ill, many jurisdictions are now implementing special training programs. Detroit implemented such a program in 2003, which you can read about here.

[1]R. C. Kessler et al., "A Methodology for Estimating the 12-Month Prevalence of Serious Mental Illness," In Mental Health United States 1999, edited by R.W. Manderscheid and M.J. Henderson, Rockville, MD, Center for Mental Health Services.
[2] Paula.M. Ditton, Mental Health Treatment of Inmates and Probationers, Washington DC: Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 1999.

[3] Fox Butterfield, "Prisons Replace Hospitals for the Nation’s Mentally Ill," New York Times, March 5, 1998, A1.

[4] Jeffrey S. Janofsky, Mitchell H. Dunn, Erik J. Roskes, Jonathan K. Briskin, Maj-Stina Rudolph Lunstrum, "Insanity Defense Pleas in Baltimore City : An Analysis of Outcome," American Journal of Psychiatry 153:11, November, 1996, pp.1464-68